Fly by wire’ doesn’t mean greater safety

Michael Evamy’s article on cockpit designs (DW 5 July) highlights an important issue. Why do airlines introduce new technology to the flight deck? Is it to improve safety and efficiency or is it so that fewer, less skillful flight crew can operate the aircraft?

I first read about “fly by wire” in the early Seventies, when on the Y16 fighter aircraft the pilots’ control inputs were processed by computer before being fed to the control surfaces. This arrangement enabled aeronautical design engineers to make the aircraft more manoeuvrable by relaxing the built-in dynamic stability.

I think the first airliner to be fully “fly by wire” was the Airbus Industries A320, to be followed by Boeing. There is little doubt that new flight-deck technology can make aircraft safer by reducing pilot workload, and by enabling the aircraft to be flown to its real, rather than procedural, limits in certain situations.

What worries me is that the airline operators may well introduce new technology to reduce their salary bill rather than make the business of flying safer. The words of director of Boeing’s flight-test division Captain K Higgins concerning future flight decks are significant (Aerospace, May 1996): “Technology should be treated with caution, with benefit analysis, rather than following the crowd. Availability should not be the overriding criterion for its use, and any automation should be measured against its ability to aid pilots rather than replace an aspect of their job.”

It is probable that the airliner which crashed on the M1 motorway a few years ago, killing many, would not have done so if its crew had included a flight engineer. Proposals for future airliners have suggested pilotless windowless aircraft controlled from the ground. For the cost of a salary, can it ever be worth the risk?

David Crisp

77 Eleanor Road

London E8

Latest articles